Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lockheed Martin promises fusion plants by 2024

Off-topic, music: the Macbook of Acapella Science, Tim Blais, the author of "Bohemian Gravity", got stolen along with non-backed-up music data. He is under financial pressure and was asking people for help. Well, within 2 days, he has already collected 3 times his goal to buy a new laptop.
Just in the last week, three self-confident reports on progress in fusion were published – and be sure that I don't count the new "independent test" of Rossi's cold fusion miracle.

What I do count is the dynomak, the Z-machine improvement, and... a today's intriguing announcement by a major aerospace and defense company:
Lockheed Martin Pursuing Compact Nuclear Fusion Reactor Concept (press release)

Aviation Week (good detailed text), Google News
We're told that they bet that their compact nuclear fusion reactor (CFR) – see the diagram above – will power the mankind within ten years.

The company is no newcomer to the fusion research. Their Skunk Works division has been doing research on fusion for 60 years. They believe that the key to progress is to design devices that are much smaller than in the ITER-like projects. And several patents are pending that may reduce the size of the reactor by 90%. Their approach falls to achieve this goal falls to the class of high beta reactors.

While details on the precise newest source of the excitement are not really available, the Skunk Works folks inform the public that they have combined useful abilities of several major approaches to the magnetic confinement of the plasma.

The figure "ten years" above sounds really cool. But the press release boasts some preliminary deadlines that are even more exciting. A prototype will be ready in 5 years – but they will already test something that looks like the prototype CFT within one year, while searching for partners who can help them.

Because the company's annual revenue was $45 billion and the gadget is supposed to be small, I hope – and think – that the shortage of money is probably not going to be a big problem.

Here is a 4-minute introductory video to their CFR they posted a few hours ago. Researchers tell you that the CFR gadget will actually power airplanes, too: the machine should be as big as a truck. Also, your favorite coal power plants will be saved – just a small piece in the center will be replaced by their device.

The guy called Thomas McGuire (whose PhD from MIT was about a NASA-led research of energy sources to get to Mars) thinks that once he completes the construction of the fusion reactor and the world will switch to it, he will still have to find a job, e.g. to clean windows in the local McDonald's.


  1. There is so much outright fraud in fusion power research that I will have to see a working machine before I believe anyone. In the meantime, they can take their press releases and ...

  2. Since it's Lockheed Martin my first thought was obviously airplanes. I haven't seen any numbers for the weight of their reactor but assuming it's less than 100 tons the power to weight should be better than combustion engines.

    Fusion powered airplanes may be a bit far fetched but ships and trains could well run on one of these.

  3. Fission powered ships - and especially Russian icebreakers - are not so different, after all:

  4. How can you believe the 5 years date line, when you said in previous posts that you believe 50 years will pass before fusion power? I have to say, it looks too good to be true.

  5. Found some examples of size and weight.

    "Power: 66 MWTh
    or 10,000 SHP"
    "Reactor Dimensions: 15
    feet in diameter, 31 feet high; 312 tons"

    Meaning 5m diameter and 10m height vs 2x2x4m for this fusion reactor. (

    Assuming similar density (might be far off) I'd get around a factor of 20 more power per weight. Presumably far smaller ships could have a 20 ton reactor than a 300 ton one.

  6. I have never said that I actually believed that one may estimate when fusion will be ready with any precision, and if I did say such a thing, like playing with 50 years or 49 years, I was obviously joking.

    No one can know when it will be ready. It can't be planned like that. It may be 5 years but it may be 500 years. These guys believe that they have a pretty specific plan that can be fully designed within months, tested in a realistic condition within a year, and they think that a few iterations like that will complete the machine. It is not guaranteed but it sounds totally plausible to me.

    The construction of this thing - assuming that it works - is much faster than for ITER because it's smaller. It's smaller because they have focused on this adjective and the quantification by "beta" seems like a clever thing. They simply concentrate lots of plasma to the volume so that the kinetic thermal energy density carried by the plasma reaches or even surpasses the magnetostatic energy in the same volume and that's good. These are nice physical insights and strategies, and the second side is how to achieve these conditions and it seems that they must know something about it, too.

  7. Take it rationally, Bob. Fusion surely works, even on Earth - the bombs have proven it more than half a century ago. The peaceful progress is just about making the behavior of the fusing material a bit more controllable, and relatively smart people who have access to pretty much any existing technology and billions of dollars have been working on similar things for this half-a-century. They are critically looking at the work of each other, their competitors, and learning whatever they can learn. I don't really think it's sensible to believe that everything is fraud here. It is just another competitive field where some progress has obviously been taking place.

  8. Thank you for the reply. After finally achieving nuclear fusion, we could abandon fossil fuel, and all the fossil fuel war, does Lockheed martin will really want it? Who will buy their war planes?

  9. Recent discoveries of oil and gas all over the world clearly shows we no longer have need of "fossil fuel" wars right now. I'm absolutely certain people will find new things to fight wars over. They always do.

  10. Interesting news. I cannot judge one way or other. But since Lockheed Martin is a private company, they would gamble their money only if they are reasonably convinced that the gamble will pay off. It will be interesting to find out if they are getting federal grants for feasibility trials.

  11. On the pessimism part; I was thinking mostly about practical concerns like getting useful propulsion, not melting the plane, either shutting down/starting up quickly or finding a use for something that can go full blast for a decade without refuelling. It might be feasible but not economically, or for whatever practical reasons, competitive with current planes.

  12. Tea for 330 millionOct 15, 2014, 11:40:00 PM

    I just saw on the Big Bang Theory that the movie Back to the Future came to the year 2015. One of the things that had not yet been invented was a compact fusion power source. In the movie, it ran on a banana peel. So it may be that somebody has predicted it with remarkable precision.

  13. If you believe this bunk, then buy their stock because it should be rising for ten years....Surely a corporation wouldn't make claims of future profitability to jack up their stock price. The money a Corporation likes to invest with is your money.

  14. If they are so sure they will have a working prototype in just a few years, why not build the prototype before making the announcement? Sounds slightly fishy to me. Maybe internal company politics to get the funding continued?

  15. That Lockheed is confident to build a working, mobile fusion reactor within a few years is intriguing but we have to keep in mind the important differences between powering mobile devices and generating useful energy.

    The Lockheed reactors don't care where the tritium which fuels them comes from as long as it is cheap enough. For the generation of useful energy, the sustainable production of tritium within the reactor itself is crucial (It is one of the main goals of ITER to decide whether this is feasible or not).

    Currently, tritium is produced in nuclear fission reactors which produce more energy per reaction than the subsequent fusion. If this doesn't change, fusion power generation will only be a supplement to fission power generation.

    So while the announcement is interesting, I don't think the Lockheed reactor will address the biggest obstacle for "powering the mankind" with fusion.

  16. There may still be a technical detail or two to solve. Those superconducting coils in the middle of a hot plasma chamber are a challenge.

  17. Press release link is not working.

  18. Hmmm, last time (around two years ago) he promised it by 2017. Now it's by 2019. It's kinda resembles Nasreddin and his promise to teach donkey talk

  19. John F. HultquistOct 16, 2014, 5:20:00 AM

    Let's say they get one of these working – a prototype will be ready in 5 years. In the next 5 years they can do what? In the USA they can propose a sizeable plant someplace and then all the usual suspects can visit in courts for the next 10.
    Can they build one in a totalitarian country? Cuba, perhaps? Or Russia? I don't see the US government allowing that.
    Irradiated food has a market penetration of near zero more than 30 years after the government labs declared it safe. Nuclear fusion reactors will come online at about the same pace.
    Maybe they can repackage it as pumpkin power by hiding it in ton size fruits, such as Swiss grower Beni Meier's 2,323
    pound record breaker.

  20. They erased the page. It might mean a fast setback, too.

  21. Are you joking, John? Lots of things are evolving badly in the West but you surely don't believe that communist countries have a faster discovery-to-mass-production cycle than free capitalist and democratic countries, do you?

    Usual suspects may seriously limit or delay certain things - like GMO or irradiated food - because the actual benefits of those are relatively small and superstitious people simply want to get this certainty in the case that their superstitions are right.

    However, if the gain were as obvious as fusion power plants, I am pretty confident that almost everyone would want that. I am sure that a ready-to-copy prototype could spread in the (democratic) Czech Republic rather easily.

  22. Because it's easier to make an announcement, isn't it? Why should it be discouraged to make announcements of the decision to develop a prototype? The interested public - like myself - surely wants to know now (maybe you don't, Luke, but I do) and we would probably learn it through one channel or another, anyway.

  23. More generally, bananas contain radioactive isotopes but I guess that it would be more useful for some fission-like sources, not fusion, but otherwise a nice prediction. ;-)

  24. It surely has a potential for a big growth. Still, it will remain just one part of what the company does, so it will only multiply the price of the stocks by a factor such as 2 or 3 and 10 years is still a long investment horizon. If it were easier to buy U.S. stocks, I would surely buy this one.

  25. I think that the neutron shield needed will be too large for confined spaces like airplanes etc. ITER uses two meter concrete walls at the outside to bring radiation down to tooth X-ray levels.

    Who wants to be for six hours in a plane next to a tooth xray machine.

  26. At this moment, I agree, but it's still possible that they have a different way of dealing with that problem, or at least a different material to shield the neutrons.

  27. Tx for this important technical point. For some background how little tritium has been produced so far:

  28. Well, they have surely paid millions or tens of millions of dollars to this research, and they can obviously still afford it if it leads nowhere.

    But maybe there is some indication that some greater money is needed and the company doesn't want to increase the budget, so the looked-for partners might be searched for because of financial reasons, too. I don't know for sure, it is plausible.

  29. I am all for new inventions, but we have to wait and see. 5 years is within my half life :)

  30. Maybe we have to wait and see but those who are employed in related research should work hard instead!

    I feel that the Skunk Works members are doing that while some of their critics in other plasma-physics-related places don't quite do it.

  31. Well, the theoretical minimum temperatures to ignite the plasma for D+D is 5 times higher than for D+T. So I think D+D is strongly suppressed at D+T operation temperatures (also there's another D+D channel which doesn't produce T).

    How big the neutron losses are depends heavily on technical details. For example a trade-off between the neutron losses and the power output is to be expected. The neutrons carry most of the kinetic energy which we want to transfer efficiently to the working medium of the heat engine but letting them interact strongly with the medium probably means to lose mare neutrons.

    A quick google search yielded the following paper which stresses the importance of tritium self-sufficiency:

  32. Thanks. Well, hopefully is not a setback, but it might be, At least a link to Compact Fusion still remains under News and Events.

  33. The desalination possibilities of having access to such huge energy sources is quite intriguing. Crossing fingers for them.
    Other aspects are cool too, Oh this, this is my new fusion powered airplane, you didn't get one of these yet?

  34. It seems that they were making some changes or something. And they are giving it even more spotlight on their website.

  35. John F. HultquistOct 16, 2014, 6:00:00 PM

    What I was thinking (above) was that Putin or the Castros could decree that these Lockheed Martin fusion plants could be built within those countries. Only as Commander in
    Chief does a US president have authority to disregard all the regulations and court cases such power stations would have to surmount.
    You mention “regular Americans' stupidity” and only have to replace the word regular with “average” and you are channeling George Carlin:
    “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”
    You are right, of course, about the
    discovery-to-mass-production cycle.
    There is a image on the web from one of the war zones -- women carrying a coffin and one holds a smart phone. Jobs unveiled the iPhone to the public on January 9, 2007. Coming up on 8 years and everyone but me seems to have one.

  36. The Z machine has an interesting history. The original idea was to create a lithium beam as a fusion driver. At that time the machine was known as PBFA-II. A barrel diode configuration was used, so the action took place in the middle of the machine, where it was hard to find room for diagnostics. There were serious problems with electron parasitics and other issues, so in 1995-96 they tried an extraction diode (PBFA-X), and a Z-pinch (PBFA-Z). When they described what they were doing to the ICFAC (Inertial Confinement Fusion Advisory Committee), the federal advisory committee that was meeting at the time to consider fusion policy, the members insisted that a certain fixed amount of time be devoted to the extraction diode configuration, because it was assumed at the time that the Z-pinch would never be anything but a copious source of x-rays for the weapons program. It turned out that the extraction diode was no better than the barrel diode at creating lithium beams, but the z-pinch was fantastically effective at generating x-rays. A bright guy named Jim Asay also discovered that the magnetic field generated in the z-pinch experiments could be piggybacked to launch little metal flyer plates at hyper-velocity that were great for doing EOS experiments. As a result, the machine became exclusively a z-pinch facility, in spite of the ICFAC recommendation. As such, it is a great resource for the US to maintain a leg up on the competition in maintaining its arsenal without a resumption of nuclear testing. However, IMHO the fusion energy angle is just hype.

    You can find a presentation on the fusion energy plans for Z at:

    Just consider for a moment the delicate fabrication required to produce targets for such a device. Remember, each of those little wire baskets is completely destroyed in each shot. Then consider the difficulty of breeding and extracting tritium from such a beast. If that seems realistic to you, all I can say is, you're more of an optimist than I am. Even the hard core ICF energy guys used to smile when Sandia presented this stuff at conferences.

    Somebody might come up with a magic bullet to solve the fusion problem one of these days, but it won't be Z.

  37. OneStringToRuleThemAllOct 16, 2014, 7:09:00 PM

    Of course military comes first....

  38. On the point of shielding; "truck sized" would still be technically correct even if the site would have to be remote or the reactor would have concrete walls built around it on site. For normal power plant use it wouldn't matter practically or economically.

    I might not get my fusion-powered airplane :(

  39. This scientist should be jumping up and down, shouting and spluttering on the microphone ! It's a great news ! How can he keep his cool ? I'd be hysterical over the whole project. :-)

  40. Over my career in industry I have known of several secret projects, i.e., projects that were kept secret even from the organization’s best scientists. In every single case the work was abandoned as infeasible when it was exposed to competent scientific and engineering scrutiny.

    I personally debunked one serious project when I showed that the basic concept violated the laws of physics. If the work had not been kept secret from me it never would have been funded at all. I was only a junior staff member at the time (almost fifty years ago) but physics is physics.

    I said in an earlier post that all of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. I would give long odds that this particular skunk works project brings nothing really new to the party and that nothing worthwhile will come from it. If Lockheed Martin is unable to provide or procure funding it is because there is such a slim chance of success. Money is always available for a good idea, and the claimed time schedule is short enough to bring in billions of dollars. This is just an exercise in wishful thinking. I’ve seen a lot of them.

  41. Gene, I couldn’t agree more with all you say here. My career was entirely spent working on classified programs, and by the end of it I had reached the conclusion that the very reason for the security was to prevent exposure to “competent scientific and engineering scrutiny”. For a certainty, I saw a good many fools down in that muck who considered themselves above the laws of physics.

  42. When fusionpower gets real the windows cleaning will be done by robots.
    But maybe research in FTL could pay off for (ultra) high frequency trading :)

  43. Dear Gene, I surely share the spirit of what you're saying, having been exposed to some secret programs that search for ET aliens already on Earth or develop some impossible Nikola Tesla cult weapons and things like that. A reason why there is often a fundamental mistake in the projects is nothing else than the secrecy itself which implies the absence of feedbacks.

    This one may still have different odds. The Skunk Works secret division *did* succeed with numerous novel models of aircraft and the guy leading this reactor has been trained by MIT and NASA within an environment filled with legitimate rocket scientists and similar folks. It's clearly a less "certain" project than just another stealth or other aircraft but otherwise the setup in which folks like McGuire get some funding in a protected group seems relatively good to me.

    And I see nothing else with external sharing of the funding. Any fusion project is probably going to be a project that looks too ambitious and expensive for any single company.

    Do you have some actual evidence that the ITER-like size etc. is actually more promising than this compact approach?

  44. No, I do not claim that an ITER-like size is necessarily more promising than this approach. The huge plasma turbulence problem does make it seem plausible that a very large size is required but I can’t prove it.
    There is nothing at all wrong with joint funding and Lockheed Martin should do whatever is necessary to optimize their business but this thing stinks to high heaven to my well-trained nose.
    The project that I personally debunked 47 years ago was led by a young Stanford PhD so I am not impressed with an MIT PhD. There are quite a few incompetent people with PhDs from leading institutions. I have personally known several.

  45. There was a saying at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center:

  46. You realize, Gene, that this slogan is heavily oversimplifying things, don't you?

    What about the Manhattan Project?

    The history of the Manhattan Project remained classified for many years. In fact, it was so secret that Harry S. Truman, although vice president of the United States, was not made aware of its existence until after the death of Roosevelt in 1945.

  47. I have a PhD and studied at the Plasma Science & Fusion Center at MIT.
    The idea of putting a fusion power plant on an aeroplane is completely insane.
    Lockheed is well meaning (I'm guessing), but they will quickly find that there are alpha particle induced instabilities (called TAE's) that will cause their system to never reach the temperatures that they need. The TAE modes tap into the fact that the energy distribution function (EDF) of the alpha particles is very different than the bulk plasma EDF.

  48. Lubos,

    Doesn't size go with recoverable energy output? Fusion electricity production has so far been been limited by no excess or recoverable energy fraction. Reducing scale and total energy makes the recovery of excess energy more difficult, no?

  49. Dear Jim, this guy says - and I've reproduced it - that the energy output may be the same for smaller devices because they have a higher density of the plasma, effectively higher "beta".

  50. I watched the video. So what I didn't hear of see was any mechanism for the fusion neutron flux to heat the gas, hot gas output that drives turbines.

    Megawatts of 14 mev neutrons in vessel the size of a rubbish bin? Molten metal heat exchanger, and the size is a lot larger than a cargo container.

    The fusion pipe dream has been going on for longer than the 40 years that I have personally visited experiments, and it looks like it will never end, like the bunny with the drum.

  51. Lubos,

    "What about the Manhattan Project?"

    As it was known by the Soviets almost from the start, and *everything* was known by Fuchs at the end, the security was to prevent embarrassment, had it failed.

    All but the exact technical details of the bombs, including the disclosure of the Xenon poisoning of the breeder reactor over General Leslie Groves strenuous objections, was published for the world after the war.

  52. I don't see any difference. The work at Lockheed Martin has probably been known to the Russian authorities, too, and it will be fully revealed later - some of it has been revealed and the (very uncertain) hope is that the Skunk Works have much more than they have shown.

    Still, both have been pretty much equally secret projects.

  53. Helian,

    Thank you for the history.

  54. Not the density of the actual fusion target plasma, but the energy density of the reactor vessel. Smaller containment volume and less volume for thermalizing the neutron output.

    Putting the thermal output of a coal fired power plant, as neutrons, into a gas heat exchanger that fits into a cargo container is some kind of unexplained magic. (concluded from what the video said about fusion power plant hot gas generators...)

  55. Lubos,

    Yes. You are correct. The Soviets knew that US spy airplanes flew over the Soviet Union, when it was a secret to Americans. Had Powers not been shot down, it would have been kept a secret until the 1990's.

    But the top physicists and engineers were not forced to work on the Manhattan Project. They volunteered and many enjoyed it, and remembered it fondly. Every one working selflessly for a common purpose, is the theme of the history of the Manhattan Project.

    US Army security was an unnecessary hindrance, many of the scientists thought then. And almost no scientists, what ever their origin and background, were declined participation. E.g. Fuchs, and his past. (George Gamow had been an officer in the Red Army, and was given a security clearance for the Manhattan Project. Soviet university graduates did required military service in the Red Army as officers.)

    So one can conclude, as Gene wrote: THE ONLY REASON TO KEEP A PROJECT SECRET IS EMBARRASSMENT. (The embarrassment of failure is his implicit meaning, I think.)

  56. Too much tritium is the biggest problem, health risk problem. picoCuries of 3H from fission power plants drive the regulators and anti-nuke scientists nuts.

    Imagine containing and processing (fuel conditioning) MegaCuries of 3H...

    The neutronics is a bug, not a feature...

    Fission power is proven to be very, very safe. The costs are very well known. And it has been very well engineered. What is the allure of a MIT Dr teasing fusion? The allure of the unreachable?

  57. There are many reasons why fission won't always be enough. One of them is that the estimated economically accessible uranium reserves are only enough for 200 years of the current electricity consumption rate.

    If one multiplied the consumption by a factor of 4, and I hope that this will sometimes happen, it would be just 50 years.

    Something like fusion will be needed for a very long era of civilization with very cheap energy. One should add all the advantages with "no radioactive waste" etc.

  58. Rossi and McGuire are not *that* far distant.

    (Rossi is a fraud. McGuire is not a fraud, and he is a real scientist. That is not the comparison.)

    Rossi 'works' for someone who is trying to sell the scheme and realize money. McGuire is a real scientist who works for a real business that is trying to sell the scheme and realize money.

    If Lockheed Martin thought that it is a profitable mechanism, they would be doing it now. they would not be publicizing it. If they think that it is a dead end, they will puff-it-up to the public, and increase the DOE give-away money that they want.

    It's easy to see where to put your own money. "If it were easier to buy U.S. stocks, I would surely buy this one. The fact that the stock price didn't actually go up today seems somewhat insane to me." Not to me. It's a very sane market response.

  59. I’m sure you are correct.

  60. There isn't much difference between you and Rossi, either, is there? Except that he has to do at least something while you are just bullšitting.

    I can't believe these vacuous comments. If you don't see the difference, you won't see it. The difference is huge. Cold fusion can't work, hot fusion works everywhere in the Universe and all the forms of energy we have ever used on Earth ultimately depend on hot fusion.

    Rossi has made up numbers about produced energy that are unquestionably fraudulent. McGuire hasn't produced any fraudulent claims about what he has achieved.

    After all, this is exactly what some people criticize him for, right? He's criticized because he admits that he is not finished, he doesn't have a physical prototype that does something remarkable.

    So the cause of the criticism of Rossi and McGuire is exactly the opposite. And I think that it's bad to produce false claims about achievements while it's totally OK to outline sketches of planned research.

  61. Come on, alpha particles have nothing to do with the question whether such a hypothetical reactor may be put in an aircraft, have they?

    The conditions in any working hypothetical fusion reactor are so extreme that all special features of the aircraft environment - like the at most "several g" of acceleration - are negligible. It's analogous to the fact that the Earth's gravity may be neglected at the LHC, among other things.

  62. There are exceptions to to almost everything and the Manhattan Project was unique in that it brought together the finest scientific, engineering and military minds in human history. You cannot imagine the confluence of Fermi, Oppenheimer, Groves, Feynman and scores of others today. Even the amazing Niels Bohr admitted that he had nothing to add to the party.
    We were confronting the greatest evil in human history simultaneously with defeating the expansionist Empire of Japan.
    The secret projects underway today

  63. Sorry, Gene, this talk about "exceptions" almost reminds me of the demagogic talk supporting some immoral parts of the U.S. foreign policy, like claims that "Kosovo is an exception", and so on. The very same issue appeared in the debate about the comparison of the Spanish Civil War and the Ukrainian Civil War. Some people clearly find this comparison inconvenient so they emit tons of fogs about exceptions and subtleties, obscuring the basic fact that what is/was happening in both countries is structurally the *same thing* and all important aspects unavoidably have counterparts in the other context.

    Call it an "exception", I don't care, but if there are exceptions, the next ones may also be an exception.

    Whether one calls it an exception or not, what I wrote was a proof that your statement that secret projects must inevitably be embarrassment is just wrong. One may add lots of other examples. After all, this very division Skunk Works has designed the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the F-22 Raptor, none of which is an embarrassment.

    I think that people, unfortunately including you, are using the talk about "exceptions" in order to hide your head into the sand whenever you are shown to be wrong about something important. You can't just dismiss a proof by screaming the word "exception".

  64. It reminds me of the time when the US had an active program to produce a nuclear bomber. Check out the nuclear engine prototypes on the Wiki page about the subject.

    These things were huge, and talk about a plumber's nightmare! You can still see them, as they're standing outside the EBR-1 reactor museum in southeastern Idaho. Fusion driven planes should be a piece of cake by comparison. A gigantic, reinforced concrete hangar still stands on the grounds of Idaho National Laboratory that was to be used to accommodate the beast. A special, lead-lined locomotive was built to carry the engines back and forth for servicing. A special track with four rails instead of two was built to carry it.
    I would much rather have a fusion plane flying overhead. After all, if one crashed in your yard, you would just have to keep a fan handy to blow away the excess tritium. Transuranic actinides from the core of a nuclear bomber would have been more of a problem.